The Hobby Lobby Case and the Unreason of Religion

Like most Freedom of Religion cases, the US Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v Hobby Lobby engages the issue of how far courts should delve into the reasonableness of religious beliefs. Like in Anselem, the Hobby Lobby decision reinforces the position that courts should not inquire into this issue at all.


An hobby horse.

Responding to the argument advanced by the government that the requirement to provide health insurance covering all birth control is not a substantial burden on religion, the majority in Hobby Lobby noted:

This argument dodges the question that RFRA presents (whether the HHS mandate imposes a substantial burden on the ability of the objecting parties to conduct business in accordance with their religious beliefs ) and instead addresses a very different question that the federal courts have no business addressing (whether the religious belief asserted in a RFRA case is reasonable). [my emphasis]

While the Court observes there are very good reasons for declining to engage in this analysis it does not say what they are. Actually, I think there is only one good reason for this, that religion is simply not reasonable. Requiring religious practices to demonstrate they are reasonable would preclude just about any claim for religious freedom from succeeding.

An hotel lobby.

It is not a question of these issues being too complex, subtle, personal, or emotional to scrutinize in legal disputes. Harassment cases are a good example of how courts can, and do deal with such difficult issues. There is no such aversion to delving deeply into whether a possible victim of harassment’s  view that she was harassed is reasonable. The law (in Canada at least) requires an objective finding that the victim was harassed. “Objective” here meaning that the reasonable person, given the context, would feel harassed.

In terms of religious practice, however, courts rightly decline to make such an inquiry. I would say the reason they do this is that they recognize that religious practices are by definition unreasonable. While religious apologists will claim that their religious beliefs are reasonable, it is quite clear that they would be utterly unable even to adduce convincing evidence, on legal standards, that any god or supernatural phenomena exists in the first place. But in a case such as Hobby Lobby, they would need to show not only that it is reasonable to believe that a God exists, but that this God has a negative position on abortion, that this includes some contraception, and means not allowing your business to have a health insurance package that funds the offensive kind of contraception.

Legal standards of evidence and proof are too high to allow for any such religious claim to succeed. If standards were lowered, contradictory religious beliefs would be accepted in various cases. For example, courts would have to accept as reasonable both an employer’s view that employees must accept Christ as their saviour to continue working there, and the Jewish employee’s view that it is blasphemy for him to do so.

Religious people may disagree and believe that their religious beliefs would be held reasonable in a western court of law. This would seem to be homicide detective J. Warner Wallace’s viewpoint. However, as I have noted, in making his cold case Wallace immediately abandons vital legal standards such as naturalism and the prohibition on hearsay.

It is due to the inherent unreasonableness of religious beliefs that courts decline to rule on their reasonableness. Instead, they rightly limit their inquiry to whether the claimants hold a genuine belief that the practice in question is part of their religion. This is possibly the lowest threshold in law, and it is acceptable only when properly balanced against the rights of others not to suffer a detriment due to such beliefs. I think the Court failed in Hobby Lobby to consider the rights of the women to be treated substantively equal when working at Hobby Lobby, as anywhere else.

About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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